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An artist’s conception shows NASA’s VIPER rover roaming the moon. (NASA Ames Illustration / Daniel Rutter)

NASA says it’ll send a rover to the moon’s south pole by the end of 2022 to answer one of the biggest questions surrounding its Artemis moon program: Just how accessible is the water ice that’s mixed in with moon dirt?

The mobile robot — whose race car name, VIPER, is actually an acronym standing for Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover — would be the first U.S. rover launched to the lunar surface since the moon buggies that went with the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions in 1971 and 1972.

“VIPER is going to rove on the south pole of the moon, and VIPER is going to assess where the water ice is,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said today at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington, D.C. “We’re going to be able to characterize the water ice, and ultimately drill and find out just how is the water ice embedded in the regolith on the moon.”

Bridenstine said getting the details on the distribution of water ice was important for sustainable moon exploration, because the agency is counting on being able to convert frozen H2O into essential supplies, including hydrogen and oxygen.

“Water ice represents something significant: life support,” he said. “Water ice is oxygen to breathe, it’s water to drink. … When you crack it into its parts, hydrogen and oxygen is the same rocket fuel that powered the space shuttles.”

Based on data about hydrogen content collected by robotic orbiters, scientists have determined that the moon’s crust could contain hundreds of millions of tons of water ice, concentrated in permanently shadowed areas of craters at the moon’s poles. It’s thought that the ice was deposited over the course of billions of years by comets and asteroids hitting the moon.

But NASA hasn’t yet had a chance to sample lunar soil on the ground and assess the extractability of that ice. And although China has landed two rovers on the moon over the past six years, they’re not equipped with the necessary soil sampling tools.

How deep is the ice? How fine-grained is it? That’s what VIPER aims to find out over the course of a 100-day, $250 million mission.

“It’s incredibly exciting to have a rover going to the new and unique environment of the south pole to discover where exactly we can harvest that water,” Anthony Colaprete, VIPER’s project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, said in a news release. “VIPER will tell us which locations have the highest concentrations and how deep below the surface to go to get access to water.”

Ames is managing the rover project, and the hardware is being designed by NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Four science instruments will be provided by Ames, Kennedy Space Center and Honeybee Robotics:

  • The Neutron Spectrometer System, or NSS, developed at Ames, will detect “wet” areas below the lunar surface for further investigation.
  • The Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain, or TRIDENT, developed with Honeybee Robotics, will dig up soil cuttings from as much as a meter (3 feet) beneath the surface.
  • The Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations, or MSolo, is an instrument developed by Kennedy Space Center to analyze the chemical composition of the soil.
  • The Near Infrared Volatiles Spectrometer System, known as NIRVSS, was developed by Ames and will use near-infrared readings to focus in on water content as well as concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane.

NASA’s plan calls for launching VIPER on a commercial rocket and putting it on the moon with a commercial lander, as part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services arrangement with nine companies. Delivery to the moon is set for December 2022.

The rover will collect data on different kinds of soil environments affected by light and temperature – in areas of the south polar region that lie in complete darkness, areas that get occasional light, and areas that are exposed to direct sunlight.

By collecting data on the amount of water and other materials in each of those types of areas, NASA can map out where else water is likely to be accessible across the entire moon.

VIPER’s findings should be available by the time NASA sends its first astronauts to the moon’s south polar region in the 2024 time frame, and they could guide decisions on where the Artemis program’s follow-up missions go. Bridenstine said he would love to see a habitat placed on the moon’s surface, and that habitat is going to need water, oxygen and fuel.

Other highlights from Bridenstine’s talk:

  • Bridenstine was asked whether SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy or future Starship rocket could contribute to the Artemis program. Bridenstine said he couldn’t discuss that topic because SpaceX was likely to propose a lunar lander for NASA’s use. “We want to go to the moon with commercial landers, and Starship of course is a commercial lander that we anticipate will be competing in this program,” he said. “Do we know that? No, but certainly it looks like they will be.” Such a proposal would have to be submitted by Nov. 1. (Update: The deadline has been extended to Nov. 5.)
  • Another question related to the potential for cooperation with China’s space program. Bridenstine noted that bilateral cooperation was currently prohibited by U.S. legislation. “Certainly in the future, depending on conditions, we would be open to that,” he said. “But it’s not just, ‘Hey, sign up and you get to come with us.’ ” China’s U.S. visa problems relating to the International Astronautical Congress stirred a controversy this week.
  • During a discussion of NASA space exploration, Bridenstine took note of the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt — and then took a controversial political stand. Noting that Pluto has a several moons, a thin atmosphere and probably a subsurface ocean as well, he said “I believe Pluto is a planet.” He said he thought the International Astronautical Union’s 2006 planet definition, which included a clause on orbit-clearing, was poorly worded.
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